Whispers and quivers: Walking tours of Manila's cemeteries

Whispers and quivers 
By Walter Ang
November 2003 issue
MTV INK Magazine

As November loomed closer, I felt the earth quiver and heard it moan with whispers from souls beyond our world. Just kidding! I didn't really hear anything, but I did feel it was the perfect time to take a walking tour of the La Loma, Chinese and North cemeteries.

I've known my friends long enough not to invite the ones who'll look at me like I've taken crazy-pills, nor the ones who will cross themselves and sneak glances at my forehead, trying to see if horns are beginning to grow. Instead, I rounded up a bunch of morbid freaks, I mean, ehem, adventurous, curious and fun-loving individuals to join in this enterprise.

We met up with our tour guide Carlos Celdran, a bubbly and gregarious fellow, and began our journey at the La Loma Cemetery. Energized by the bright afternoon sun, we were eager to explore the earth and see what stories it would reveal.

Beginning at the end
Away from the city noise and clutter, the tombstones and statues of angels stood tall and erect, serene monuments calling our attention to the Netherworld. Carlos, who also does walking tours of Escolta Street in downtown Manila and Intramuros, started off with extremely insightful historical and architectural tidbits on how the cemeteries came to be. He wove in economics, politics and all sorts of trivia -- all without sounding like a droning teacher from Social Studies class.

In fact, seeing tangible remnants of what he was talking about made it so much fun and entertaining I wondered why we didn't have this tour as a field trip back during my student days. My tourmates got so into it that they were practically shouting out names of laws (feeling like game show contestants, I'm sure) that I had long buried in my brain like the Tydings-Mcduffie Law, Jones Law and some Hare Krishna Law. I, on the other hand, had flashbacks of terror teachers asking questions I didn't know how to answer. The past really does come back to haunt you!

Before we left La Loma, we tried to sneak into the church and stumbled upon a group of men having some sort of religious meeting. I was once told never to be afraid of dead people, "it's the live ones you should look out for." No words rang truer at that moment. Apparently, it was some secret exclusive men's faction and these guys wouldn't allow the women in our group to go in ? talk about freaky.

Next stop was the Chinese cemetery where Carlos gave us joss sticks (incense to the rest of us) and "wishing" paper money to burn so we could do ancestor worship. Just like the Chinese, how exciting! We solemnly did as instructed, watching smoke from the tips of our burning joss sticks float to the sky, our intents and desires along with those ethereal wisps, onwards and upwards.

The Chinese cemetery is a cornucopia of visual delights, with rows and rows of mausoleums that featured a mixture of Oriental and Christian motifs. As Carlos gave us an overview of Chinese death rituals and burial customs, we were led to a mausoleum with a glass fa├žade and a velvet curtain keeping its innards away from prying eyes (like those of nosy, noisy tourists, ehem).

This particular mausoleum, according to a source, is the only one in the world to have been included in the Guinness Book of World Records for having an airconditioner. Lots of mausoleums have those now, but I suppose this one started the trend. These days, there is nothing beyond those floor to ceiling curtains, since its, uhrm, residents have been moved to another cemetery south of Manila.

The high cost of plots have spurred a steady migration, leaving a lot of the graves in this cemetery empty now (what our tour guide described as "desecrated tombs"). This strange fact, along with the stillness of the air and the sight of crumbling walls and fallen angels cracked in half added to the eerieness and sadness of it all. I have grandparents buried there so the place was not new to me, although I imagine it must have provided a surreal, otherworldly experience for the rest of the group.

A grave for everyone (and their dog, too)
Our last stop was the North Cemetery, a veritable melting pot of races, classes and religions. And stories -- this place is a treasure trove of lore and juicy, steamy tales.

We go to see the plot of the Thomasites, the Katipunans, the Freemasons, and yes, even our country's first World Flyweight Boxing Champion, Pancho Villa. The circumstances surrounding their deaths are as colorful as Pancho Villa's headstone and as textured as the intricate carvings on some of the statues punctuating the cemetery.

What surprised me was that this cemetery is apparently the final resting place of a lot of the former presidents of our country. So this is where they end up! For those of you who think dead presidents are only good for having their faces printed on money, this tour will definitely change your mind.

"Remember, it's not tsismis if it's true," Carlos began, and proceeded to dish out tales about our former heads of state that made our eyebrows arch and jaws drop. Affairs, conspiracy, murders ? twists of truth that would put any telenovela to shame.

Our last stop was the stately plot of former president Manuel Roxas. As we took time out to digest and relish all the information we had learned that quiet, lazy afternoon, we were challenged to find out where the Roxas's family dog had been buried. The night had begun to steal away the sun and the sky had turned a pale gray. Someone from our group finally found Bogie's little niche, a pet who left his family forever in his tenth year of life.

Feel like waking (stories of) the dead? Contact Carlos Celdran at 671-7726 or 0916-783-1383 or celdrantours@hotmail.com.